The Painter Who Depicted the 'Other' America

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Alice Childress, 1950Collection of Art Berliner. © The Estate of Alice Neel. Courtesy David Zwirner, New York/London and Victoria Miro, London

“If you don’t have humanity, you don’t have anything,” said the late painter Alice Neel. As a new exhibition opening at Victoria Miro gallery demonstrates, her portraits have never been more relevant

In 1938, American painter Alice Neel decided to leave the bohemian cradle of Greenwich Village, an epicentre of the New York art world at the time, and move to the poor and unsung neighbourhood of Spanish Harlem. It was here that she found an important part of her artistic soul. For the next 50 years, until her death in 1984, she painted uptown, documenting the varied New York personalities she encountered there. Neel was aware of and active in the political shifts that marked the period and advocated for diversity. She knew that art could be a means of capturing social and cultural changes and she became focused on depicting what Michael Harrington referred to in his eponymous 1962 book as “the other America”: Latinos, African Americans, and Asians who were her friends and neighbours.

Alice Neel, Uptown, currently on view at Victoria Miro, is the first exhibition dedicated to Neel’s portraiture depicting people of colour. Curated by author and critic Hilton Als, the show demonstrates how Neel broke from the canon of Western art. “She was not, in short, limiting her view to people who looked like herself,” explains Als. “Rather, she was opening portraiture up to include those persons who were not generally seen in its history.”

Uptown is divided into two sections, the first dedicated to work Neel made during the 24 years she lived in El Barrio, and the second highlighting paintings she made on the Upper West Side, where she moved in 1962 and remained until her death. The 16 portraits included in the show depict a wide cross-section of personalities, ranging from her friends to well-known figures associated with Harlem and the civil rights movement. Among them are the playwright, actress, and author Alice Childress, the sociologist Horace R. Cayton, Jr. who co-authored Black Metropolis, a seminal 1945 study of the African-American experience, and Ron Kajiwara, a designer at Vogue.

No matter the subject before her, Neel viewed them with a sharp, attentive, and most of all, empathetic eye. She didn’t seek to represent a statistic, but rather to bring to the forefront the humanity and individuality of each of her sitters. Her strength lay in “showing us the humanness embedded in subjects that people might classify as ‘different,’” Als remarks.

The intimate exhibition reveals aspects of Als’ ways of seeing just as much as it does Neel’s. An affinity emerges between Neel’s compassionate portraits and the numerous, probing profiles Als has written for The New Yorker since joining its staff in 1996. In the catalogue accompanying the exhibition, published by David Zwirner Books and Victoria Miro, Als reflects on the way Neel’s approach to her subjects reflects his own writing practice: “In an essay, your story could include your actual story and even more stories; you could collapse time and chronology and introduce other voices. In short, the essay is not about the empirical ‘I’ but about the collective – all the voices that made your ‘I’. When I first saw Alice Neel’s pictures, I think I recognised a similar ethos of inclusion in her work. The pictures were a collaboration, a pouring in of energy from both sides – the sitter’s and the artist’s.”

“The world does not need our sentimentality, Neel’s portraits seem to say, but our interest and empathy,” Als notes. In a moment when the idea of difference is under assault, the exhibition – a “gallery of souls” as Als puts it – is a strong reminder of the value that comes through the simple act of looking, openly and generously, at one another. “You can’t leave humanity out,” Neel once said of her work. “If you don’t have humanity, you don’t have anything.”

Alice Neel, Uptown is showing at Victoria Miro Gallery, London until July 28 2017.